February 3, 2012

Understanding the Digital Divide

I need to be careful. A new job and new learning gives me plenty of excuses not to write. My mind is occupied with all sorts of things that make it challenging to be be reflective sometimes. Writing and blogging has been a critical part of my own growth as an educator and I have no intentions of that changing but I need to force myself to write. This might be one of those occasions. 

Last week I visited two dramatically different conferences. FETC is one of the larger educational conferences you'll ever attend. While numbers have decreased significantly from the first time I attended over 11 years ago, there are still thousands that make their way to the Orange County Convention Center to drink in all things related to technology and learning. My first time there in 2001 I recall attending a pre-conference workshop on streaming video. I believe it was Miami-Dade County sharing how they were able to stream events such as football games and graduations to their community using a truck with TV studio equipment and servers coming out the wazoo. It took me about 15 minutes to realize that someone from Moose Jaw, SK with a handy cam and a lab of 30 computers had no business being in on that session and no hope of ever being able to do anything of that magnitude. I continued to be in awe that week of the emerging hardware and software that offered some new possibilities. I left feeling pretty excited. 

The next few years at this conference were less and less exhilarating and by the 2009 I had pretty much decided there wasn't anything happening there that I would need. My learning space had shifted. What I valued from conferences was about meeting new people whose ideas and sharing I was beginning to understand but wanted some clarification. Call it the flipped conference. Unfortunately FETC wasn't the best place to experience this. Unlike ISTE,  who was not only larger but had begun to acknowledge this need amongst a percentage of its conference attendees, FETC wasn't really embracing this need. 

This year I attended FETC as part of my new role with Discovery. As it turned out, it was a great way for me to spend time with co-workers, ask questions, watch a pre-conference event and connect with many DEN stars. In addition, there were many Canadians in attendance (Florida in January may have something to do with that) and made some important connections that will be helpful as develop community in Canada. But although for me, there was benefit, I couldn't help but noticed that 11 years since my first FETC, there was still a large focus on tools and devices. Very few sessions dealt with the real hard questions of teaching and learning. To be fair, I was largely going by the program and session descriptions but I struggled finding sessions I thought woudl be interesting beyond, "here's a bunch of tools I think are cool". 

The conference ended Thursday night and Friday I left for Philadelphia to attend Educon. Educon and FETC are nothing alike. Educon is small, 500 or fewer. Educon takes place in a school. Educon is in Philadelphia, not Orlando. Educon is designed to be conversational. I led one of these sessions with Alec Couros and shared this diagram from D'arcy Norman as the basic formula for the conference:

This happens because Chris Lehmann attracts smart people. It happens because a high percentage of these people interact with each other regularly online. It's a community  coming together to get at some important issues. It's kind of a flipped conference. It's not a perfect conference but it serves the needs of many who are looking to connect deeply with people and ideas. 

I think FETC meets some of their needs as well. However it's much more of an introductory space for many. A large number of attendees are experiencing shiny new tools and ideas for the first time. I often lose sight of that. At the same time I don't think they're adverse to having the conversations that might take place at an Educon but may not be ready to go there. I think they lack a context for change. 

I'm making a number of assumptions here and I may in fact be wrong. But I did come to realize that just because I find the format and style of Educon more to my liking doesn't mean that an FETC conference doesn't have value. I also realized that my role with Discovery is going to mean that I need to find more ways to reach a more diverse audience. In one month of travels and conversations, I'm seeing first hand the spectrum of technology use and understanding which is greater than I perceived. Working inside a single district, I at least understood the culture. I knew that while not every teacher was using technology to its fullest, I was aware of the circumstances and barriers to a greater degree and was able to provide the more appropriate supports. I've seen some schools and teachers who are dealing with very different challenges than I witnessed. Schools with virtually no technology outside of a single smartboard and a lab of out of date computers. No wireless access. High levels of filtering. Boards with limited vision. While I was aware these problems existed, they weren't really my problems. Now they are. 

So all this to say the digital divide is vast. Somehow I need to prepare myself to address that and It begins with a more sympathetic attitude towards those just beginning to see that things could be different. I think at times I've been harsh and impatient with people. Not openly perhaps but may have dismissed someone's seeming lack of interest as being reluctant. I'm realizing that so many people have not had the opportunities and time I've had. Again, this isn't new but I got a good reminder last week. 

The Educon experience of community and challenging conversations is something I hope to pursue and nurture with my time at Discovery. I've got lots of resources to make that happen but I've also got a big challenge in supporting a country as big as Canada. 

I'll keep sticking with what's gotten me this far; smart people. I know a few.